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Balancing Logos, Pathos and Ethos

Finishing up this tour of logos, pathos and ethos – Aristotle’s three Modes of Persuasion – I hope by now you realize that non-cognitive factors such as emotion and connection with others do not need to be at odds with reason.

Emotion, as I've talked about before, can be a source of valuable data that serve as the premises in logical arguments. In addition, our feelings and relationships often determine what is important enough to think and argue about. But emotion can also lead us astray, something we have all experienced personally, probably with much regret. This is why we should strive for a balance of logos, pathos and ethos, not just in our arguments, but also in our lives.

While there is no formula for achieving this balance, there are some things to understand about the human mind, as well as a few rules to follow, that can help make the logos, pathos, and ethos within us partners rather than competitors.

In his 2017 book Thank You for Arguing, author Jay Heinrich points out that our five senses can be associated with specific modes of persuasion. Smell, touch and taste, for example, are almost entirely pathos and ethos drivers, which is why the smell of taste of freshly baked cookies have such powerful emotional impacts, as does the appreciative hug received by the baker.

Sight and hearing do the heavy lifting when it comes to logos which is why we learn almost entirely through those two senses, whether by reading a book (sight), listing to a podcast (hearing) or watching a lecture or documentary (sight and hearing).

These two senses also play non-cognitive roles. For example, music is one of the most powerful ways to move people (i.e., impact them emotionally). Given how difficult it is to blend logos-based audio (like a lecture) and pathos based sound (like music) without one drowning out the other, the logical and emotional roles played by hearing tend to not come into conflict.

No so with sight since the things we read often contain images, and when image and word collide it is almost always the image that wins out in getting your attention or persuading you. For example, if I told you that 4.5 million people are bitten by dogs every year, I suspect your opinion on dogs will be impacted more by the image at the top of this story, rather than the statistic you just read.

In a multimedia world, sight and hearing (in the form of video and narration) can also come into conflict and, again, when processing information imagery tends to win out over words whether spoken (narration) or written (such as the crawls that appear at the top and bottom of news stories).

This highlights the fact that we are highly suspectable to pictures and moving pictures that generate strong emotional responses, something we have all experienced over the last few weeks. This does not mean we should distrust those images or try to suppress our reactions to them. But it does mean we need to ultimately treat wrenching sights as premises that still need to hold up conclusions people advocate for based on them.

In addition to understanding how susceptible human beings are to powerful, gut-wrenching imagery, we should also process what we see and hear through our experiences regarding the nature of different emotions. For example, emotions such as love, caring and concern are ones that have probably brought us the most happiness and success in our lives, while emotions like anger, fear and hatred are the ones that led to experiences we most regret.

In the real world, it can be difficult to untangle different emotions. When we become enraged at a great injustice, is that primarily about empathy or anger? While the latter might be completely justified, and can motivate people to immediate action, the former is more likely to overcome injustice over the long term.

Beyond sorting out our emotions, we should also be attuned to arguments that rest entirely on pathos and ethos, especially those that cast aside logos as unnecessary. As mentioned previously, too much logos make an argument (and the arguer) seem unsympathetic. But arguments that lean to heavily on pathos or ethos can come off as manipulative and pandering.

Remember that argumentation, or at least the argumentation we should be having, are all about getting people to change their minds, to get them to want to believe or do something you have convinced them to believe and do. While passion can be a great motivator in the short term, appeals to reason that don’t ignore (but don’t rely entirely on) positive emotions like love, or ethos factors like trust and empathy, stand the most chance of changing the world for the better.


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